Right food, right place, right time. It is my belief… that this is the best recipe of all.
~ Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries
Recently, Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini wrote about cooking for one. Her post, and a serendipitous accident that happened in my skillet, prompted me to write this post.
Clotilde identifies a few ways that one might approach a Solo Meal Night, which I think of as:
1. the “Cool, I get a night off – I’m just going to eat toast, or anything that requires minimal or no cooking/washing up” approach
2. the “Ah! I finally get to cook what I want now that my husband/wife is AWAY! I’m going to have truffles, lobster, and all the great things he/she hates but I love” approach
3. the “I’m going to have exactly what I feel like, and it’ll be delicious” approach
It’s interesting, isn’t it? This thing of eating alone? People seem divided about it. This activity doesn’t seem to be widely advocated. I mean, there are lovely books like Judith Jones’s “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” and Suzanne Pirret’s “The pleasure is all mine – selfish food for modern life” which remind you that there are people in the world who do cook and eat alone, and do it well and with enjoyment… but most of the time, the reality is closer to what Suzanne says:
“The images in most cookbooks and cooking shows nowadays help perpetuate the feeling that eating alone – especially eating well alone – is not really an option. The requisite denouement for almost all cooking shows includes a fantastically happy group of friends and family, heads thrown back in laughter with the mandatory Mmmmmms, Oohs, and Ahhhhhs, as they feast on the perfect spread – all in blissful, panoramic Technicolor. Your only hope is to be a part of that life one day… But until then, it’s anti-depressants and beans on toast for your sorry ass.”
Okay, I think her line on anti-depressants and beans on toast is a little extreme – but I’m not shaking my head at what she wrote either. It’s true, cooking for one isn’t often glamourised.
On some level, I think that’s a good thing.
I mean, I love and need time alone, but I do believe that even the most introverted introverts weren’t made to hide in a cave and eat by themselves for ever. Love and connection and cooking/eating together are to souls and minds what sunlight and water are to plants.
On the other hand though, you glean other treasures from cooking/eating alone too.
This year is the first year in a few years that I remember cooking and eating on my own so much, despite eating out a fair bit and cooking with others occasionally too. It’s been tough at times, therapeutic at others. Now that it’s no longer as unsettling for me, I notice different things more – my thoughts; the gradual darkening of the sky outside the window; the taste of food; selfishness; generosity; the mind-clearing powers of a clean kitchen.
In the last few years, I mostly cooked for flatmates, friends, boyfriends (they cooked for me too). I can’t really remember, off-hand, many solo cooking and eating nights. I DO remember the shopping lists. Meal planning. Bulk shopping. Catering to others’ tastes. The desire to make something delicious to feed the people I loved. Generous servings. The need for meat to be present when boys were eating at my table.
I think the cooking shows and books featuring eight beaming people around a food-laden table used to make more sense to me. I scarcely worried about food rotting in the fridge/pantry. I was fortunate to be able to go grocery shopping with a car most of the time.
So, when I moved to Auckland earlier this year, there were times when just the thought of going to the supermarket would evoke tears. I missed certain people. I missed the person I was when those people were with me. I got stressed about having to make time to walk there and back. I sighed about not knowing what the heck to make. I thought about recipes but let the thoughts go immediately because I didn’t want to eat the same thing every day for two weeks.
Yet, at other times, I was pretty happy about the situation I found myself in. I relished the thought that I could eat just veges if I wished, or poached eggs on toast every day for a week. I could spend four hours cooking, or order a pizza, and no one would mind. I could make a pavlova castle for dinner. The possibilities were endless.
As it is, I didn’t (and still don’t) follow a pattern. Mostly, I seem to keep a supply of eggs, garlic, herbs and spices, baking ingredients, dried pasta and parmesan cheese at home, and buy vegetables/meat/fresh produce every 2-3 days. I don’t really like frozen-anything as a rule, unless it’s dessert or soup for emergencies.
Sometimes I catch up with friends at cafes/restaurants/bars. Sometimes I cook two servings of a dish, and bring half of it to work the next day for lunch. Sometimes I eat instant noodles (yes, horrendous. I do it). Sometimes I eat more than I need to, like when I’m cold or sad or both. Sometimes I walk to the market on impulse just to get something fresh, then walk home and spend hours fussing over something elaborate. Sometimes I cook with the same ingredient for a week because I need to use it up. There are no rules.
On the accident I mentioned early in this post. The other evening, I was too tired/lazy to go to the supermarket, so I actually planned to just skip dinner and go to bed. But THEN I opened the fridge and spied the fennel I had bought over the weekend and forgotten about! And it was still green! Being tired, I just chopped and tossed mindlessly, not expecting much… so you can imagine I was pretty delighted when it turned out to be a pretty darn good toss-up!
I’m still very happy about it.
This is the approximate recipe:
Heat some water in a saucepan. When it comes to a rolling boil, throw in some salt and pasta (I used large spirals) and cook according to packet instructions.
While the water boils/pasta cooks, smash and chop 1-2 cloves of garlic, chop up 3 sundried tomatoes and dice 1/2 a fennel bulb. Zest half a lemon. Take out 5 anchovies (I used these).
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a pan. Add in the garlic and fennel and sauté for five minutes, then add in a heaped tablespoon of butter, the lemon zest, sundried tomatoes and anchovies. Shake in some dried basil (rub it between your fingers as you go; if using fresh basil, tear with your fingers and add in right at the end) and some chilli flakes. Continue to sauté.
Rescue and plate the pasta (stir in a drizzle of olive oil if your pasta is sticking together). Pour the fennel and anchovy sauce over it, then add black pepper and parmesan to taste. Eat immediately.